The Tragedy of the Boat People: The Sea is not a Cemetery



It is brutal, heartless and disgraceful and it happens in oceans of despair. It has been called slavery of the 21st century, an emergency and a crisis that defies description.

The Mediterranean boat crisis continues to grab the attention of the world as politicians scramble to devise solutions. There was a time when the boats ferrying souls seeking a better life would disappear in the seas with little thought given to them. But these are modern times with the social media bringing to our doorsteps the plight of the boat people.

Can the world show compassion to a segment of the population that is asking for a second chance? This may appear to be a simple question but in reality the boat crisis is interwoven with politics, wars, poverty and countries seeking to secure their borders at all costs. The problem of the boat people has not just arrived at the door of Europe. It has a history written with the indelible ink of cruelty that began in the developing world.

In 1978 Mahatir bin Mohamed was the deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. When boatloads of refugees from Indo-China began landing on the shores of Malaysia Mr. Mohamed appealed to the wealthy nations to take them. He did not make any headway. Malaysia then came up with its own solution. Mr. Mohamed said sternly that Malaysia would ‘ force back into the sea some 74,000 refugees and if they try sinking the boats they won’t be rescued. They will drown.’

A dramatic turn of events then occurred. The plight of the boat people caught the attention of the international media just as world leaders were preparing for their summit in Tokyo. A series of articles in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ and the ‘Washington Post’ called on world leaders to deal with the ‘tidal wave of human misery’ and the then US President Jimmy Carter was forced to act. He devised a plan to accept about two million refugees in twenty years with Canada, Australia and France also partnering with the United States in the process.

The Mediterranean boat crisis has brought to the attention of the international community the sheer numbers and the suffering that goes with leaving one’s country. In 2014 around 218,000 persons crossed the Mediterranean of which 3, 500 perished in the high seas. By mid-April 2015 it was estimated that over 35,000 persons made the crossing from North Africa to Europe and around 1,500 persons lost their lives. Clearly, the death toll is unacceptable and a plan of action is desperately needed to stem the tide of human traffic across the rough seas. The countries of origin are Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Mali, Gambia, Nigeria, Somalia, Palestine and Senegal.

Why do people leave their homes and risk everything by crossing the seas to Europe, Australia and to other countries? In April 2015 the Libyan coastguards rescued 300 migrants after their boat capsized off the coast of Libya. Another 400 were missing. One man said that he was traveling for the fourth time to get to Italy and like so many others he was ready to take his chances. There were migrants from Eritrea, Somalia, Senegal, the Gambia and other countries that were working in Libya but wanted a better life in Europe. Their stories are harrowing and each tugs at the heart and cries out for international action. These migrants work for years to acquire the smugglers fee that would hopefully ferry them to a better life.

One response of the European governments was to lessen the number of rescue boats to deter persons for making the voyage but this has not worked. The numbers kept increasing. There are times when migrants are forced to enter boats. One migrant said that the Libyan trafficker told hundreds that the boat was big and seaworthy. Migrants paid around $700 each to make the trip and were forced to enter the ship with a gun aimed at them. There is no doubt that the war in Syria has changed the dynamics of the boat crisis. The Syrian refugees could afford to pay more to make the crossing and this has empowered the traffickers to charge more money and to take greater risks at sea. This has also meant using boats that are not seaworthy.

While attention has been focused on Europe there are continuing problems with the boat people trying to get into Australia. In 2010 a number of persons were drowned off the coast of Australia that prompted the government to act. Despite several attempts to cross into Australia asylum seekers have been thwarted. Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stated publicly that his country’s policy is that in order to stop deaths at sea ‘ you stop the boats.’

It is argued that when compared to Europe Australia’s approach is different. For example, in Europe the debate involves an examination of the causes leading to the exodus while in Australia there is hardly a debate about poverty and wars in the host countries. The idea is simply to stop the boats from entering Australia. This meant that the various panels that were set up to revisit Australia’s policy were largely ineffective.

The government of Julia Gillard formed an expert panel in 2012 to look at the problem of boat people. It suggested pathways that asylum seekers would have to clear in order to be let in to Australia. But it also included the turning back of boats. In 2015 only the deterrence aspects of the policy is being implemented. According to reports the latest policy is that ‘ no asylum seeker who arrived by boat could ever be resettled in Australia.’ Those that are caught would be taken to Manus Island or Nauru after which they are sent to their country of origin.

This policy has led the Refugee Council of Australia to report that, ‘ it is about forcing people back in the direction that they’ve come. The Australian policy at no point has taken account of the need for protection of people who are attempting to come to Australia by boat. That’s never been a serious part of the discussion from politicians in Australia.’ But Australia has results to show for its policy. Since Tony Abbott came to power there have been less asylum-seeker vessels. Sixteen boats attempted to get into Australia and only one was successful.

Can Europe stop the boats from landing in its waters? Nigel Farage, a former leader of the right-wing UKIP party in Britain, said that ‘millions would swarm the shores of Europe from North Africa.’ But there are crucial differences between Europe and Australia.

Apart from geography there is politics and poverty. The refugees that are turned back to Indonesia from Australia will most probably find a third country or live in refugee camps. But those that flee from Libya to Europe and are turned back will face a harsh future as ‘ you are injecting them straight back into the danger where they fled.’

There is no question that the boat migrations will continue into Europe. In recent weeks it has made headlines across the world. There are a number of ideas that have been proposed to handle the crisis. The first has called on the European Union to act. Its current policy has been describes as a ‘moral and political failure.’ One suggestion is for Europe to increase its rescue operations instead of cutting back on them. Clearly, cutting back has not worked since the numbers of refugees have increased.

An urgent need would be for the European Union to devise a clear and consistent policy toward the boat refugees and this could include spreading them to other countries as was done for the Vietnamese refugees. This would lessen the burden on any one country and may help in the integration of refugees in the mainstream. There are other political issues to examine and they relate to the state of the host countries.

One argument is for Europe to do more to help countries that are struggling with refugees. This can include providing aid to help in governance and this may also lead to the problem becoming less entrenched. The speedy processing of applications for refugee status in host countries can help to break the underground networks and the increased use of dinghies to cross the high seas. But there has to be the political will to make changes for the better.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.